To Win and Lose a Medieval Battle: Najera (April 3, 1367), a Pyrrhic Victory for the Black Prince. (eds.) L. J. Andrew Villalon and Donald J. Kagay (John France)

L.J. Andrew Villalon and Donald J. Kagay (eds.)

To Win and Lose a Medieval Battle: Najera (April 3, 1367), a Pyrrhic Victory for the Black Prince

(Brill, 2017) 650 pp. $197.00

This is an immensely thorough and detailed study of the battle of Najera. The event itself is often dismissed by modern writers as an exotic adventure by the Black Prince, a mere adjunct, and a futile one, to the ‘real substance’ of the ‘Hundred Years War’ which remains such a focus for historians, and especially those interested in military development. But this book is much more than simple ‘metal-bashing’. The authors are distinguished historians of Spain and, accordingly, have produced a substantial account (33-139) of the context of the campaign which led up to the battle which is, in itself, a useful history of the Hispanic peninsula in the fourteenth century. The section on the campaign (143-262) outlines the involvement of the Black Prince and his followers in the context of European diplomacy, before a thorough account of the battle (222-62). In the third part, ‘Defeat from the Jaws of Victory’ (265-303) the authors explain why this tremendous triumph was in the end an exercise in futility. But perhaps the most striking and welcome aspect of the book is the inclusion of translations of most of the sources, Hispanic and other, which cast light upon the battle, its origins and its consequences (323-604). These, together with the list of participants (305-22) are of immense value to anybody with an interest in the history of Spain in the 14th century and represent a fine corpus of teaching material in an age when modern language teaching is in decline. There is a very able outline account of these sources in a very nicely written Introduction (1-29) which beckons the reader on to the substantive material.

As the authors say, there is very little doubt that Pedro of Castile (1334-69) was the author of many of the troubles which afflicted Spain in this period. Not for nothing was he called ‘the Cruel’, and his arbitrary behaviour toward his leading subjects and aggression against neighbours was clearly frightening. But then he had succeeded as a child, and was brought up in a court riddled with faction. This was far from unusual and perhaps more could have been said about the European-wide situation. The state-building of the fourteenth century presented threats to aristocratic autonomy, and opportunities for enrichment and office. This intensified factional struggles. And the new wealth and power enhanced the ambitions of kings. The many-faceted struggles in Central Europe mirror Pedro’s ambitions against Aragon whose closely interwoven relationship with Castile provided ample pretexts for costly aggression which intensified internal tensions. The emergence of Enrique of Trastámara, ‘the Bastard’, Pedro’s illegitimate half-brother, who deposed Pedro in 1366 and murdered him in 1369, arose from this situation. In many ways the career of King Pedro closely resembles that of his contemporary Peter I of Cyprus (1358-69). Peter pursued an aggressive foreign policy which could only be supported by enormous pressure on his factious nobles. Peter, too, became arbitrary and, like Pedro, was sexually aggressive. He also was assassinated by his (in this case legitimate) brothers: on this see Peter W. Edbury, The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades 1191-1374 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 167-79.

Because Pere III of Aragon (1336-87) was allied to France the troubles of Spain became enmeshed with the sequence of wars which we call ‘Hundred Years War’. The Treaty of Brétigny of 1360 ushered in a period relative peace, freeing the military adventurers, the ‘Free Companies’ for employment elsewhere. Traditionally Castile has been allied to France, but Pedro’s brutal treatment of his French bride had alienated the French court and the papacy, and by 1362 he had turned to England for support. Pedro’s long war on Aragon strengthened the pro-French stance of that kingdom and intensified his pressure upon his nobles. As the conflict with Aragon dragged on Enrique and many Castilian nobles fled to the court of Aragon, and in 1366 this alliance of interests, with French support, called in the ‘Free Companies’. They were a mixed bunch of soldiers led by the distinguished French soldier, du Guesclin and the English knight Hugh Calveley. The invasion of Castile in 1366 was a great success: Pedro was forced to flee for protection to his English allies and Enrique became king. It was this conjunction of events which ushered in the campaign and battle of Najera which is the centre-piece of his book.

Pedro now made generous promises to persuade the Black Prince to help restore him. The Prince seems to have been more than willing, while his father, Edward III, consented, revealing how the Spanish war had become an extension of the rivalry with the Valois. The French, in turn, moved markedly close to Pere III and facilitated du Guesclin’s recruitment drive in France. The authors make a fine job of explaining the complex diplomacy, and most particularly the stance of Charles II of Navarre (1349-87) who was forced to allow the Black Prince’s Anglo-Gascon army passage through his lands, but arranged to be kidnapped by the French to avoid fulfilling all the promises he had made. It may have been the influence of the guides which he provided that led the Prince’s army towards Vitoria where they suffered from shortage of food and suffered sharp defeats in skirmishes by the ginetes, Castilian light cavalry who refined their skills in war against the Moors. The decision of the Black Prince to march in February when food would be in short supply was a strange one, as the authors point out. Perhaps the simple reason was overconfidence. In the event the Prince needed a quick decision, for many in his Anglo-Gascon army had enlisted for victory and loot, and he was frustrated by the deadlock around Vitoria where Enrique refused battle. As the authors say, this kind of deadlock favoured Enrique and his French supporters urged him to continue in this course of action, but he knew that if the enemy marched into Castile without a battle many of his subjects would defect. When the Anglo-Gascons abruptly moved south, therefore, he was obliged to follow and challenge them. The care taken to explain this unspectacular period of the campaign is not the least virtue of the book – the authors interrogate the sources well and supplement them with their own travels in the area, adding a helpful map.

The two armies which clashed on 3 April 1367 were probably equal in numbers, though the authors show that the sources are imprecise, so they hazard no guess about total numbers. The decisive factor which suggests a rough equality is that the Black Prince attacked – outnumbered English armies usually stood on the defensive. In the subsequent fighting the Castilian left under Don Tello, Enrique’s brother, broke under attack while the centre and right fought well. However, the longbow was very important on the right in fighting off the attacks led by Enrique. In the centre the professional French and English infantry supported by some cavalry, engaged in a savage close-quarter battle. Ultimately the right faltered while the flight of the left fled resulted in a panic and a massacre during which Enrique escaped, though du Guesclin was among the notables captured. The authors place some emphasis on the heavier armour and equipment of the Anglo-Gascons and the presence of longbowmen. But ultimately they suggest that Enrique was defeated because he abandoned harassment, chose to fight on the open plain instead of standing behind the river Najerilla where there was only one bridge, and entrusted his right wing to his unreliable brother, Don Tello. It is a shrewd summary.

But as so often, this was an inconclusive victory, for Enrique escaped. Then Pedro massacred many of the prisoners before the Prince, for whose army they were valuable assets capable of raising ransoms, could intervene. Pedro soon moved south exacting bloody vengeance on his enemies. Worst of all he refused to pay the huge sums he had promised to the Anglo-Gascon army. The Black Prince had profited little from his great victory and marched back over the Pyrenees. Enrique, backed by the French and Castilian nobles alienated by Pedro, defeated and killed him, and so France gained a useful ally in the renewed war against Edward and his descendants.

In this valuable analysis of the battle of Najera, its causes and consequences, the authors discuss topics of wide general interest to military historians, notably the problems of logistics and the desirability (or otherwise) of battle. The great virtue of the account is that it is built upon the sources which are discussed and evaluated throughout. But its greatest value undoubtedly lies in the translations of sources in the appendices. This is an important book based on solid and careful scholarship which for this campaign decisively supplants P. E. Russell, The English Intervention in Spain and Portugal in the time of Edward III and Richard II (Oxford: Clarendon, 1955).

John France
Swansea University

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